Cultural Appropriation
Politics and Activism

Cultural Appropriation

The line between appreciation and exploitation

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In honor of the annual Coachella season’s commencement this past week, I’d like to once again highlight the discussion surrounding cultural appropriation. From bindis, through feathered head ornaments and dashikis, all the way to war paint, the festival’s fashion scene has it all. The issue here is not people being keen on sporting items of clothing or accessories that have symbolic connotations in certain cultures, but rather they, as members of a dominant group, often tending to exploit the heritage of marginalized ones without previous consideration.

One definition, as given by Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, is, ‘’taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.’’

More often than not, these appropriations come in the form of a passing fad, be it twerking when it was ‘in’ not as a result of a newly found appreciation and understanding of African-American culture, but due to a music video featuring Miley Cyrus adopting it as yet another sign of her path to self-discovery. Or when cornrows and dreadlocks are admired and requested simply because individuals with large public followings like the Kardashians or Katy Perry were seen wearing them, and not as, for example, a protest against the stigma which exists of these hairstyles being ‘unsanitary’ and ‘unprofessional’. For black people especially, cornrows and dreadlocks can act as an immediate rejection when applying for a job, whereas for white people they are seen as ‘edgy’ or ‘unique’.

Changing or even getting rid of oppressive actions that have made their way into everyday interactions is no easy task. The Coachella debate for one, is not about denying people of different cultures the use of aspects of one which is not their own, but about doing it without a thought. Diversity in society is an inherently good thing, but it is not achieved through only paying attention to certain cultures when it is suitable, or when it benefits an individual who has no experience being a member of an ostracized group. If you know you’re about to use a symbol or an element of a culture which is not your known, learning about the context and its history can be the first step in avoiding contributing to cultural appropriation.
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